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McLaren F1 looks like a million - and costs it

September 04, 2005|By MALCOLM GUNN

If the McLaren F1 looks like a million bucks, it's because that amount just happened to be the sticker price of the car during the 1998 model year, the last year of its production.

During its limited run, only 100 cars would ever be constructed (64 intended for street use, the remainder primarily created for racing). Ownership was and is, in reality, membership into a very exclusive club.

Camaraderie with a few dozen extremely well-heeled automotive hedonists is the thin edge of this very slick wedge. F1 guardianship represents close and loving proximity to an automobile that's high on excitement and prestige. It's also a better-than-gold investment that delivers higher financial return than most stock portfolios. So great is the demand that used F1s are fetching more than double their original seven-figure selling prices.

There's obviously something quite magical about a million-dollar car - or a two-million-dollar car, in this case - beyond the sheer audacity of its performance and price tag. What would compel anyone, even the wealthiest of sports-car enthusiasts, to spend that kind of largess on an engine, body and four wheels?

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As with most weighty questions, the answer is complex. There are many better-known and significantly less expensive exotics on the market that'll have you confronting your own mortality with every stab of the gas pedal and turn of the wheel. Yet the McLaren name itself has an allure all its own. Originally founded by the late Bruce McLaren in 1966, the company has garnered considerable success on the Grand Prix circuit over the years, winning numerous world championships plus the Indianapolis 500 and the French 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race along the way.

It was always Mclaren's dream to build the ultimate street-going sports car and he had actually produced a couple of prototypes before his death in 1970. Some 20 years later, the company's owners, led by chief engineer Gordon Murray, had done considerable justice to McLaren's vision.

The heart and soul of the F1 has been perfectly captured in its exquisite and unique bodywork made entirely of carbon fiber. The designers succeeded in making it purposeful and artful at the same time. One glance and you know the McLaren means business. You also know you're in the presence of something very special.

Crack open one of the scissors-style doors and you're again taken aback. This is a three-place roadster, with a centrally located driver's position (custom fitted to the owner's specifications) and one passenger seat on either side and slightly to the rear, as if to not disturb the operator.

The operator, in this case, has their hands full, controlling a 2,500-pound vehicle with a BMW-supplied 6.1-liter DOHC V-12 engine that makes 627 horsepower and 479 lb.-ft.of torque at 4,000 rpm.

A six-speed manual transmission completes the powertrain.

In the statistics department the mid-engine F1 is nearly without equal. Zero-to-60 mph occurs in an eye-blink-quick 3.4 seconds and reaching 150 mph takes fewer than 13 seconds. A specially prepared Le Mans racing version established a record for the fastest "production" car to go from zero to 100 mph and back to zero: an astonishing 11.5 seconds. The car's top speed has also been established at a tick above 240 mph. Remember, this is street car.

Although originally solely intended for the street, seven GTR-branded models were created for the 1995 Le Mans race. In their initial outing, five of the seven finished an impressive first, third, fourth, fifth and 13th. In honor of this achievement, McLaren built five F1 LM (Le Mans) street machines, all painted the same shade of Orange that Bruce McLaren used on his early Grand Prix and Can-Am racing cars.

These days, owners of the out-of-production F1 (the last car was completed in 1997) are far from ignored. McLaren not only maintains repair facilities in every country where the cars might be found, but its headquarters in Woking, England, can diagnose problems with each car via a special modem that was included with every purchase. This device allows downloading of each vehicle's complete mechanical history, so that factory technicians can determine the exact nature of the problem, and even fly a technician to service/repair the car, if necessary. This level of attention doesn't come cheap, but for anyone in possession of a million-dollar thoroughbred, the bill for such service is probably not an issue.

To date, no other manufacturer has attempted to duplicate, much less surpass the F1 for sheer speed, style and cost. The 2003 Ferrari Enzo, priced at around $600,000 comes close, but it falls short on both price and its mere 217 mph top speed.

On the road, or the road course, the McLaren F1 remains the winner and still champion.




Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.

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